Bremerton High School in Washington state fired coach Joe Kennedy in 2015 for refusing to stop praying after games. Kennedy, a Christian, made prayer part of a postgame ritual.

Current And Former NFL Players Rally Behind Football Coach Who Was Fired For Postgame Prayers

Eight current or former NFL players, including a Hall of Famer, have rallied behind a high school football coach who lost his job for praying.

Bremerton High School in Washington state fired coach Joe Kennedy in 2015 for refusing to stop praying after games. Kennedy, a Christian, made prayer part of a postgame ritual.

Eventually, some players joined him, and he began to use motivational speeches that included religious references.

Kennedy sued after he lost his job, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated. He lost. The liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California supported the lower court ruling. In a 2017 decision, the court said, “By kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, Kennedy was sending a message about what he values as a coach, what the District considers appropriate behavior, and what students should believe, or how they ought to behave.”

The coach, the court added, “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him.”

Yet in January the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

Kennedy is aided by the public-interest law firm Alliance Defending Freedom. On Wednesday, the group filed an amicus brief for its client that came from eight NFL players.

The list included quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles, as well as Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood.

In their brief, the players noted, “Imagine, for example, if Coach Kennedy had ‘taken the knee’ not to pray after the game, but to protest racial injustice beforehand—during the National Anthem—while others stood at attention saluting the flag, with hats off and their hands over their hearts. That practice, like Kennedy’s prayers, is controversial —courageous to some and offensive to others,” the filing said.

“But if Joe Kennedy had taken a knee to protest racial injustice, the District almost certainly would not have argued that his speech was somehow the state’s. Rather, there would have been no question that it was protected private speech.” And it’s safe to assume that under those conditions he would have been lauded, and not fired, in liberal Washington state.

“Under a proper understanding of state action, there is no question that Coach Kennedy’s prayers fall on the private side of the public-private line. Accordingly, those prayers are protected, not prohibited, by the First Amendment,” the brief continued.

The players note that at one point in their careers they all played at public high schools and all were allowed to pray, including with coaches. Those prayers, they said, expressed “gratitude for the opportunity to play,” as well as being for “promoting high ideals of sportsmanship, protecting the safety of those who take the field, bridging personal, political, and racial divides among players, and ultimately in glorifying God.”

ADF Senior Counsel John Bursch said in a statement, “American citizens do not give up the right to personal prayer when they accept employment with a public employer.”

“The First Amendment protects prayer because it is private speech, not government speech,” added Bursch. “(T)he 9th Circuit wrongly reasoned that Coach Kennedy’s personal, on-field prayers were not his own, but the government’s—and worse, that even if the prayers were his own, the risk that someone might think they were the government’s prayers meant he had to be censored.”

“But the coach’s prayers were not a part of his official job responsibilities, and if he had instead been saying a silent prayer in the school cafeteria before lunch, no one would have thought of attributing it to the school district. The fact that he prayed after a game doesn’t change the fact that his speech is just as protected by the First Amendment, and we hope the Supreme Court will reverse the 9th Circuit and affirm just that.” 

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